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Stock photography hits rock bottom

Getty Images is acquiring Unsplash, a controversial stock photo agency where over two million images come with a free commercial licence.

Unsplash founder, Mikael Cho, said the acquisition doesn’t mark the end of Unsplash. ‘I’m excited about this acquisition is because it’s not goodbye, it’s about acceleration.’ And about making him quite rich!

‘Unsplash will continue to operate as a standalone brand and division of Getty Images,’ he said. ‘The entire Unsplash team will be staying and building Unsplash in the direction we have been. The main difference now is we have access to the resources and experience of Getty Images to help accelerate our plans to create the world’s most useful visual asset library.’

The free picture platform isn’t popular among professional photographers who sell stock photography, as Unsplash devalued the market by offering a broad commercial image licence for literally nothing. Unsplash has also enabled other issues for users on the platform.

In 2019 British small business owner, Simon Palmer, published an Unsplash image on his blog, and was demanded payment by a copyright detection agency on behalf of the real photographer. Unsplash claims no liability over monitoring what’s uploaded, yet also doesn’t have a stringent vetting system to determine the credibility of contributing photographers. By using Unsplash with good intention, Palmer found himself in a copyright spat.

And last year, a US photographer uploaded an image of a ballet dancer to Unsplash, and was horrified when the photo appeared in a UK government advertising campaign to encourage retraining into IT. With Covid-19 thrashing the UK’s creative industries, and the government offering minimal assistance, many creatives felt the advertisement was a giant slap in the face. And the poor young female dancer, who didn’t consent to the advertisement, became the face of this campaign and the controversy that followed.

So back to Getty’s acquisition!

In 2016 the Getty Images team first met with Unsplash, and the two companies stayed in toucj. Here’s what Cho has to say about it:

We weren’t sure they would see the world the same way we did given their business was largely built on licensing. Over years of conversations, however, we learned about the level of respect they had for the Unsplash community and the rights of creators to choose how and where their imagery is made available. Craig Peters, Getty Images CEO, told me, “We have so much admiration for Unsplash. What you’re doing for creativity and what you’ve built is incredible.”

It also became clear we shared a similar view of the world. The impact of imagery has never been greater and will only become greater in the future. And we both aim to push that impact further than anyone has ever done before. After interacting with the team at Getty Images more and better understanding their long-term vision, we realised we shared so much alignment that going at this together could be much more impactful than going at it separately.

And there you go. Getty Images, an agency profiting off the back of creative photographers, views the offering of millions of free pictures as being ‘incredible’ for creativity.

Unsplash has recently launched two new programs. Unsplash for Brands is a platform designed to use product placement in stock photography to create ‘trusted’ and ‘organic’ advertising. An example is a picture showing a Square digital payment tablet, which was uploaded to Unsplash and consequently was used as a generic image by media outlets and on social media. That’s the idea, although the program appears to be new, so it’s unclear how it actually performs.

There is also Unsplash Hiring, which allows Unsplash users to potentially go-pro by offering their photographic services for hire. Presumably this would lead to paid work, but one must wonder what the client’s budget looks like!

Getty is a big believer in these two new platforms, and the acquisition will allow Unsplash to ‘accelerate our plans’.

‘ We’ve identified ways we can grow faster together, collaborate more with brands, and create many more opportunities for creative talent,’ Cho said. ‘We’ll be hiring and adding resources to bring each of these parts of Unsplash to full bloom much quicker than we could have done alone. So yes, we are excited for what’s to come. It’s been nearly eight years since Unsplash began as a Tumblr blog with ten images. Since then, Unsplash grew into something greater than we ever could have imagined.’

Getty’s not the first major stock photo agency to offer free commercial images. Adobe Stock launched a free collection of 70,000 images.

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